Cultural Operations

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Episode 1 : operation, cultural operation

For an

This is not an embezzlement of definition.

Cultural operations are already, to begin with, an operation…

The choice of a feminist Latin etymology

Operation comes from the Latin word “operatio” (adding to it an “n” of love), meaning to work and a work.
A first origin can be found in “opus, operis”, a work and to work, but also as in work of art, a finished product. Or we could have the opos-opus of sap and juice, of sweat or sesterce, which one can get from working… PaaLabRes relies on a second origin, taken from the antique feminization (in the tactical feminist-action) of the first opus, operis: “opera”, to work and a work, but also activity; that is of a production in progress. In the framework of certain customs, an idea of providing service, with application and attention, with taking care and trouble, is associated with this word.

The verb operor (to work and making something, but also to practice, to exercise, to produce, to achieve) adds the meaning of to have some effect. It appears that the operative roots of the construction of all these words are:

  • ops, for power, strength, means, force including the idea of help, support and assistance.
  • op, radical that indicates the eye or the sight (as in optical matters for example), and by extension, analysis (as in biopsy, analysis of a living tissue), and also the prefix indicating “opposite” and “against” (to oppose, to be in opposition).

The “op” of hip hop, and the hype and the hop, of the oopsy daisy!
And the hit and the pot, of the horsy’s hops and of the seal’s seashore
Let’s stop our ding dongs
A   p o s t a l   s t a m p
No hip and no hope, no more dis-hope or sur-hope?
Suripo and syrup’s la la my don dingbat

[song in the process of being recorded]


Some previous (not yet cultural?) uses of operations ?)

An operation, “action done by some power, some force, which produces a physical or moral effect” [Cnrtl, A], is mysterious and magical. In the first traces of written texts we have, RELigion was not far: with the Holy Operation, old lips pear eat also in its operations.

As “action carried out according to some method, through the combination of an ensemble of means” [« action faite selon un méthode, par la combinaison d’un ensemble de moyens », Larousse French dictionary, opérer 1-opération 2], another religion grabs this term: l’ECONomics and BUSiness carry out speculative, financial, and monetary operations.
Les MATHématics themselves contributed by specifying an operation as “a process of a determinate nature that, starting with known elements, engenders a new one” [« processus de nature déterminée qui, à partir d’éléments connus, permet d’en engendrer un nouveau », Robert French dictionary, 3]. It is interesting to pay a short visit to “logic”: “examples of logical operations: identity, negation, conjunction, either exclusive or inclusive, non-disjunction, inclusion, non-conjunction” [« Les opérations logiques sont : l’identité, la négation, la conjonction, ou exclusif, ou inclusif, la non disjonction, l’inclusion, la non conjonction », Cnrtl B2b, Guilh. 1969].

And the MILITary (it is strange that, in dictionaries, “milit.” means military and not militant)… Look! They have not shown the tip of their nose under gasmasks. They annexed operation as an “ensemble of strategic movements or of tactical manœuvres of a deployed army, executed in order to attain a given objective” [Cntrl, C1]

Movement, manœuvre… strategy, tactic… all this evokes something… no, not in this context, actually mostly against this military / police context… the “lightning-raid operation” by Alpha Bondy of the Brigadier Sabari: the police violence (already more than 30 years ago!). And also another book with a revolutionary content… even an introduction? Ah yes: The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau (translated by Steven Rendall, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984)… which has “the purpose (…) to make explicit the systems of operational combination [les combinatoires d’opérations] which also compose a ‘culture’ and to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term “consumers.” Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others.” (p. xi-xii) And here you are: “operation” in its plural form, is not very far from the word “culture”. We will come back to it.

Another big domain of the use of the term is MEDicine. An operation is here a surgical procedure performed on “some part of the living body for the purpose of modifying it, of cutting it, of taking it out” [Robert dictionary, 4], “for therapeutic, preventive, aesthetic or experimental purposes.” [Cnrtl D]. A certain number, even indeed a considerable number, are undoubtedly necessary after a military operation…

The takatak and tikitik of the machine guns
tactic of gunners,
that’s a lot of deaths, that’s a lot of deaths!
The clataclak and clatterlet of shears,
catheters and curettes,
repair bodies, repair bodies!

[song in the process of being recorded (bis)]

It is worth noting that the relative frequency of the term (in the corpus of the Trésor de la Langue Française) more than doubles between the first part and the second part of the 2Oth Century: from 5103 to 11520 occurrences (applied to a 100 thousand words [Cntrl, Fréq. Rel. litter.]). Is it thanks to the progresses in medicine? Is it the fault of the multiplication of military deployments? Actually, it’s both, thank you captain (in an operetta)? Or else is it due to the fast pace of financialisation? It is certainly not the appearance of the phrase “cultural operation” in the conclusion of Culture in the Plural by Michel de Certeau [(trans. Tom Conley, Minneapolis, London: The University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p.133-147] that was the cause of an “operation” runaway…

A cultural operation?

At first, it is necessary to clarify the words culture and cultural. We could multiply the definitions that do not limit the so-called cultural field to the arts and artists. They are numerous, and it is fundamental to constantly recall them in order to fight against the confiscation of the process of conceptualizations by recognized artists. Michel de Certeau writes in Culture in the Plural:

“Surely if it is true that any human activity can be cultural, it is not necessarily the case or is not yet inevitably recognized as such. If culture is really going to exist, it is not enough to be the author of social practices; these social practices need to have meaning for those who effectuate them.” [p. 67]

And in this framework, what can be an operation?

For Michel de Certeau, “the cultural expression is foremost an operation”. Concerning this idea, he indicates three instances: “(1) To do something with something; (2) to do something with someone; (3) to change everyday reality and modify one’s life style to the point of risking existence itself.” [Ibid. p. 143] For him the operation is the meeting point of a particular trajectory that goes across a place, a “practice of a space that is already constructed”. Here, the spaces are “determined and differentiated places” organized by the economic system, social hierarchies, the manners of expressing oneself, the traditions, etc. [p. 145] The trajectory modifies through particular actions the conditions of the instituted places:

“Thus, cultural operations are movements. They inscribe creations in coherences that are both legal and contractual. They stipple and trace them with trajectories that are not indeterminate but that are unsuspected, that deform, erode and slowly change the equilibrium of social constellations.” [p. 145-146]

A zebra [“They stipple and trace them” is used here as a translation for “Elles les zèbrent”, and the verb “zèbrer” comes from the animal “zèbre”] is “the wild donkey” [“l’âne sauvage”, Larousse French Dictionary] “with a very fast gallop” [“au gallop très rapide”, Robert French Dictionary], it is an “ordinary individual” [“individu quelconque”, Cnrtl], a “strange individual” [“individu bizarre”, Robert]… Striped like a zebra, a walker makes the cars listen to reason… To streak like a zebra is to scratch and jam the system, is to striate and “to mark with sinuous lines” [Larousse], with the signature “Zorro”…

For all the zebras who zig and zag
social constellations, star-type societies
For all the other Zadigs and other Zidanes
who dance with no ceremonial and fly in the nets
with zazou’s zedoary of zipped zany
And some hot pepper! Some erosions, movements, alterations,
And some hot pepper! Some collusions, changes, transformations.

[song in the process of being recorded (ter)]

In addition to all this, let’s keep in mind a few ideas from the early definitions above: production as process rather than as finished product, attention and application, strength with help and support, facing up to something, engendering something new, intervention (to come in between, to emerge during something, to stand in-between, to interrupt, to mingle with, etc., a term that the military and medicine use also a lot!); likewise the notion of actions done together, or series of actions.

In the next episode, we will continue to work with the elements developed by Michel de Certeau. His book, The Practice of Everyday Life (op.cit.) begins with: “This essay is part of a continuing investigation of the operations, the ways in which users – commonly assumed to be passive and guided by established rules – operate.” (p. xi). This is the first phrase: the plural is there and the expressions linked to “operation” are very present in this general introduction….

An affair to be followed!

Nicolas Sidoroff – February 2016
Translation Jean-Charles and Nancy François

List of the dictionaries used…

Listed in the order of edition.

  • [Larousse] : Dictionnaire de la langue française, Lexis. (1992). Jean Dubois. Paris : ed. Larousse. (original edition, 1979).
  • [Robert] : Le nouveau Petit Robert (dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française). Text by Paul Robert, revised et amplified under the direction of Josette Rey-Debove and Alain Rey. (2008). Paris : Dictionnaires Le Robert (new ed. millesime, first edition of Petit Robert, 1967, of nouveau Petite Robert in 1993).
  • [Cnrtl] : Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales. [consulted on line:ération , February 11, 2016]

For the etymology:

  • Dictionnaire Latin-Français. Félix Gaffiot. (1934). Paris : Hachette [consulted on line:, February 11, 2016]
  • Les racines latines du vocabulaire français. Jacques Cellard. (2007). Bruxelles : De Boeck, ed. Duculot 4e édition.
  • Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français. Jean Dubois, Henri Mitterand, Albert Dauzat. (2011). Paris : Larousse, ‘Les grands dictionnaires’.
  • Dictionnaire d’étymologie du français. Jacqueline Picoche, with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Rolland. (2015). Paris : Le Robert, coll. ‘Les usuels’. (new ed., first ed., 1992)


 For an itinerary-song towards…